Reflections on Michael Cohen’s Testimony

If Charles Pierce is correct that yesterday’s Michael Cohen hearing was “as sordid as the worst brothel on the Singapore docks,” it was still nice to see the man brought low and thoroughly humbled. I almost enjoyed watching the Republican members completely ignore everything Cohen had to say in favor of savaging his character. If anything, they were far too kind. But there was one significant problem with the GOP’s performance. They continuously lambasted Cohen for having come before Congress previously and lying his head off. But the only perjury counts he received were related to lies the president had told himself. Even more sketchy is the fact that Cohen stated under oath that the president’s lawyers had reviewed and edited his perjurious testimony before he gave it.

This cognitive dissonance provided extra poignancy when Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona told Cohen, “You’re a pathological liar; you don’t know truth from falsehood” and Cohen responded, “I’m sorry, are you referring to me or the president?”

Still, the Republicans were successful in distracting from the main point, which was that Trump’s pursuit of a skyscraper in Moscow was initially a higher priority for him that winning the nomination or the presidency, and that he has lied constantly about this, exposing himself to blackmail and foreign influence by the Russians.

The Democrats were little help. As the New York Times dryly noted, “Few members seemed to have done deep research to elicit new information,” which is a substantial understatement. As repulsive as the Republicans’ tactics were, at least they had a plan and at least they executed it. Too many Democrats wasted their time going on fishing expeditions only to come up empty.

In the grand scheme of things, what Cohen provided was mainly contained in his opening statement and amounted more to aggravating factors than primary rationales for impeachment. He confirmed that Donald Trump has committed a variety of crimes, both before and during his time in the White House. Cohen provided documentary evidence implicating Trump in bank, wire and insurance fraud, campaign finance violations, misuse of a charity, and tax evasion. He also exposed Trump as a fraud who revels in stiffing contractors and routinely inflates his net worth when it suits him. He gave firsthand accounts of Trump’s extreme prejudice against black people. He explained his role as a fixer, including how he bullied reporters and university administrators, and how he worked with people at the National Enquirer to “catch-and-kill” to negative stories about his boss.

These are all very serious matters, but not the kind of earth-shattering revelations required to build momentum for a Pence administration. The truly dangerous stuff lurked in the background. Notably, Cohen confirmed that he is actively cooperating with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York:

Prior to Wednesday, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York were known to have been examining whether any Trump Org executives violated campaign-finance laws as part of the scheme to reimburse Cohen and had been conducting an investigation of the Trump inaugural committee, CNN has reported.

On Wednesday, Cohen suggested they are also examining a conversation he had with Trump in the spring of 2018, within two months of the FBI having executed search warrants on Cohen’s home, hotel room and office.

After telling the committee that conversation was the last time Cohen spoke to Trump, Cohen said he couldn’t speak further about that matter because it is under investigation by prosecutors. “I’ve been asked by them not to discuss and not to talk about these issues,” Cohen said.

Minutes later, Cohen was asked: “Is there any other wrongdoing or illegal acts that you are aware of regarding Donald Trump that we haven’t yet discussed today?” Cohen replied: “Yes, and again those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”

At another point, Cohen disclosed: “I am in constant contact with the Southern District of New York regarding ongoing investigations.”

Questions directly related to the Russia investigation were intentionally limited. Cohen provided closed-door testimony on those matters this week to the congressional intelligence committees. After his Tuesday appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, ranking member Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia stated, “When this investigation started, I said it may be the most important thing that I’m involved in in my public life in the Senate. Nothing I have heard today dissuades me from that view.”

Yet, two pieces of pertinent information were discussed in the open session testimony on Wednesday. First, Cohen stated that it was his opinion that he had witnessed Donald Trump Jr. informing his father that the now infamous June 6th, 2016 Trump Tower meeting was set up and going forward, although this is nothing more than informed conjecture on Cohen’s part. Second, and more concrete, was Cohen’s testimony that he was present for a July 2016 speakerphone conversation between Donald Trump and Roger Stone in which Stone claimed to have spoken directly with Julian Assange.

In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of “wouldn’t that be great.”

In one way, this isn’t as damning as it might look. As a Republican congressman pointed out in the hearing, Assange had publicly stated more than a month before, on June 12, 2016, that he had documents that would provide “enough evidence” to indict Hillary Clinton. The significance of the Trump/Stone call is that it contradicts the story both of them have been telling for almost three years now.

Based on other evidence that the Office of Special Counsel has produced in court filings, it seems unlikely that Stone was telling the truth about speaking directly with Assange. At different times, Stone used Jerome Corsi, Ted Malloch and Randy Credico as intermediaries, and he exchanged some text messages with Assange, but there’s no public evidence that Stone had phone conversations with him. On the other hand, assuming that Stone was at least accurately conveying what he had learned second-hand from Assange, this represents an earlier (and probably different) contact than anything Mueller has so far produced.

To see why this is a problem for the president, remember that this was one of the items Mueller had on his list of questions he asked Trump to answer: “What knowledge did you have of communication with or regarding Roger Stone, persons associated with Roger Stone, Julian Assange, or WikiLeaks?”

Trump reportedly denied explicitly and in-writing having any knowledge of these communications. Mueller would need further corroboration to make a perjury charge here stick, but presumably he has phone records and, perhaps, other witnesses.

As Charles Pierce noted, “the Republican Party disgraced itself on Wednesday when Michael Cohen, the current president’s former king fixer, sat before the House Oversight Committee to describe some of the garish and baroque offenses against the law and the republic committed by Donald Trump.” They did this by refusing to treat any of those offenses with even a remote degree of seriousness. I think the Democrats did almost as poorly by coming unprepared and without a coordinated plan that they could execute with much degree of success.

The hearing wasn’t a complete dud, but it did not live up to the advance hype. The truly good news for the president is that Cohen did not report firsthand knowledge, let alone personal participation, in any direct coordination with the Russians on the hacking issue. It appears that Cohen either did not go to Prague or he’s convinced that there will never be any proof of it. That undermines the Steele Dossier quite severely, which must be quite a comfort to the president’s nervous supporters.

On the other hand, there was plenty of confirmation that the president is a crook and a fraud whose lies are being exposed. And there were enough hints of things still hidden and beneath the surface to suggest that Trump has perjured himself and has legal problems that go far beyond the Russia investigation.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.